Czech Leader Vows to ‘Never Resign’ as Pressure Builds in Probe
(Bloomberg) -- The Czech Republic’s billionaire prime minister rejected intensifying calls for him step down as he tries to save his hard-won coalition from collapsing amid public outcry over an investigation into whether he committed fraud.
The fraud probe has imperiled the political career of Andrej Babis since his upstart ANO party defeated its traditional mainstream rivals in elections a year ago. The media, chemicals and agriculture tycoon’s promises to root out corruption and block immigrants have helped make him the country’s most popular politician. But his anti-refugee stance has also nudged him closer to a group of nationalist leaders in the region that are challenging the European Union’s liberal and multicultural values.
Babis’s minority government will face its biggest test of unity next week in a no-confidence motion organized by the opposition after his son claimed that his father tried to hide him from the probe into the alleged misuse of European Union aid funds. Babis has rejected the allegations, saying his son is mentally ill and reporters who taped him on a hidden camera behaved unethically.
“I will never resign, never,” Babis said in remarks broadcast by the public television from government headquarters in Prague Friday. “Let everyone remember that.”
The opposition lacks the required majority to oust the government in the no-confidence motion, but the outcome may remain unclear until the last moment. The junior coalition Social Democratic Party said it will make up its mind only shortly before the Nov. 23 vote.
Pressure on Babis intensified this week when the Seznam.cz website showed a video of his son saying people working for his father had lured him to Crimea and held him there against his will. Andrej Babis Jr. is a central figure in the investigation into the alleged misuse of EU funds worth $2 million at a recreation center that once belonged to his father.
Babis, with a net worth estimated at about $3.4 billion, rejects the case as a fabrication by his rivals and said the video of his son is part of a campaign to drive him out of politics. Several thousand protesters took to the main square in Prague on Thursday, demanding Babis resign. More demonstrations are planned for Saturday when the country marks the 29th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime.
The prime minister has a strong ally in President Milos Zeman, who shares his anti-refugee views and picked him to lead the government. Zeman said Thursday he didn’t expect the government to fall, but that even if it did, he would again ask Babis to create a new cabinet.
The Social Democrats, Zeman’s former party, have seen their popularity decline since they joined the minority coalition. The minority government survives with the help of the Communist party, which isn’t part of the administration but supports it in key votes.
Still, Zeman’s public endorsement of Babis puts pressure on the Social Democrats, who are fighting for relevance after suffering a devastating loss of parliamentary seats in the 2017 elections. With their popularity having suffered since joining Babis in government, they risk becoming even less relevant if they join the opposition, according to Jakub Charvat, a political scientist at the Metropolitan University in Prague.
“The Social Democrats will, in the end, probably find some reason to continue supporting Babis’s government and maintain the status quo,” Charvat said.
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